Coach Rahul Dravid's first 'big test'

Coach Rahul Dravid's first 'big test'

After a fruitful stint with U-19 & 'A' teams as coach, expectations will be high on former India captain in Sri Lanka

There is a certain buzz around India's limited-overs series against Sri Lanka, beginning today, notwithstanding the fact that a handful of first-choice players - including the limited-overs skipper and his deputy - aren't on this trip to Colombo. By no stretch of imagination can this be termed a second-string team, for at least half a dozen players, depending on the playing conditions and the situation, would be a part of the primary Indian white-ball team. It's certainly not an "India B team" that the great Arjuna Ranatunga, who in his bitter and long-drawn fight against the Sri Lankan cricket board often comes up with comical to outrageous statements, would have us believe. 

That naturally raises expectations from the Rahul Dravid-coached side. Not only because they have a side with a wealth of experience, matching or even surpassing some of the international teams, but also because they are up against a side that has been on the back foot for various reasons, cricketing or otherwise, even before the first ball has been bowled.

The hosts, who have won both 50-over (1996) and 20-over World Cups (2014), have been on a downward spiral for some time now. A side that consistently reeled out one great player after another between the mid-1980s and the mid-2000s lacks the depth and discipline of the not-too-distant past. While the dearth in quality is obvious, the absence of pride is striking. Developments before, during and after the recent white-ball tour of England have done little to help salvage the situation.

The pay dispute between the Sri Lankan board and the players wasn't exactly the ideal build-up against one of the best limited-overs sides in the world. While the bio-bubble breach by Kusal Mendis, Danushka Gunathilaka and Niroshan Dickwella, who were sent back home, was embarrassing, the 0-5 drubbing across two short formats was deflating. If it wasn’t a whitewash, it was only because the weather played truant in the final outing. And just two days before the start of the series against India, Kusal Perera was ruled out of the entire leg while pacer Binura Fernando will only be available for the T20Is.

On the other hand, the Shikhar Dhawan-led side, with a handful of uncapped but exciting players, has enough experience and enterprise. Against this backdrop, anything less than a win for India will be considered an upset. 

Former India opener WV Raman agrees. "They will be expected to win and that by itself will put a little bit of pressure on the guys playing in Sri Lanka," the former India Women coach opines. "They do have enough experience and talent. Couple that with the kind of poor form exhibited by Sri Lanka in recent times, I think people won't settle for anything less than a win. They have every reason to believe this particular side is capable of winning. They do have the wherewithal to win, that's for sure. It's a little bit of pressure but you can't escape pressure in international cricket."

By extension, this series could be also looked at as the first "big test" for Dravid, who has had great success as coach of India's Under-19 and 'A' teams even though he didn't attach much importance to results. Dravid is of the firm belief that the U-19 and 'A' matches are for the growth of cricketers, and therefore, those players should not have to be tied down by expectations. This approach has paid off, as the current National Cricket Academy head has been credited with grooming several talented players and ensuring their seamless graduation to the senior Indian team. Prithvi Shaw, Rishabh Pant, Shubman Gill and Mohammed Siraj, among others, have repeatedly waxed eloquent on the positive influence Dravid has had. Even when India beat Australia 2-1 early this year in the Test series with a number of regulars unavailable with various injuries, a part of the success was attributed to the former India captain.

That brings us to Dravid's current assignment which, unlike U-19 and 'A' series, necessitates delivering results. These are senior international matches and not a stage for "developing" players. The pressure of expectations will be as much on the much-admired coach as on the players. 

Raman, however, doesn't think Dravid will or should be judged based on the outcome, one way or the other, as it's just a "one-off" assignment he is "filling in".            

"It's something that he is filling in or a one-off thing because of the fact that one batch is sitting in the UK and the other batch has gone to Sri Lanka on a short tour," he points out. "I don't think there is any pressure on Rahul Dravid to deliver results for the simple reason that by the time this series is over, people will be fervently talking about what happens in the England (Test) series.

"What will perhaps be expected by people from this particular series is players like Sanju Samson and Prithvi Shaw performing well, and trying and pushing the selectors. I think the focus will be on individuals who are there and thereabouts, who have shown a lot of talent... There will be a lot of expectations on them to push the selectors in the future by performing well. Rahul Dravid, I don't think, will be the focus at least in terms of results, because I don't think it's fair to pin everything on a coach on a short tour, especially when they have had very little time to practice. They have had this bio-bubble thing to fulfil," he explains.

Dravid also might not see this series as a platform to prove his credentials; he doesn't need to either. But there are already opinions dime a dozen that the Lankan sojourn could just be an audition for the Karnataka stalwart's natural progression as the head coach of the Virat Kohli-led team. Remember, the contract of Ravi Shastri, the incumbent head coach, runs its course only till the T20 World Cup in October-November this year.

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